There’s a quiet revolution going on in toilet technology. It really is an age where anything is possible.
Australian toilets use up to 12 litres in a single flush.
This is madness right?
There’s been a few improvements in water-efficiency in recent years but the fact remains – in one of the driest continents on earth, we still flush swimming pools of perfectly good drinking water down our toilets.
And some years, I can only water my garden on a Wednesday.
Toilets are old school. In fact, look around your house. Chances are your toilet is the most antiquated piece of technology you own. Is there anything older? Do you own a wind-up gramophone?
They took a while to get going in the West, but archaeologists have dug up a working toilet in China that’s 2400 years old.
And it looks pretty much the same as ours. There’s a stone bowl and running water – even an arm-rest.
But the fundamental essence of ‘toilet’ is the same, and it hasn’t changed in thousands of years: there’s a bowl, that fills with water, and pipes that take it away to the sewerage pipes, which take it even further away.
This is the essence of toilet.
And maybe this is a case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. But if water is going to remain one of the big challenges in Australia, then surely there’s scope to get a little creative.
And I was reading about the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation the other day. They’re getting behind all sorts of fantastic causes. Ending hunger, eradicating disease, building super toilets.
Hey? Yep, turns out one of their missions is to build the toilets of the future. They’ve given 8 universities funding to help bring toilets into the 21st century.
The vision is breathtaking.
They’re dreaming of toilets that require no infrastructure – no pipes under the floor, no leach field under the lawn, no sewer systems under the street. The super toilets just powder and burn the faeces and flash-evaporate the urine, making everything sterile in the process.
And it’s a toilet that keeps on giving – packets of urea (for fertiliser), table salt (there’s a marketing challenge!), even enough power to charge your mobile phone.
And these toilets even create fresh-water for you.
If they succeed, the implications are staggering. Poor sanitation is still one of the primary causes of death and disease in the developing world.
Super-toilets could save millions of lives.
But even in the developed world, they reckon three quarters of our water bills comes from hauling away waste and running sewerage treatment plants.
It saves money. It saves water. There’s free salt. It’s win win win.
They’re also aiming for the super toilets to be able to process green-waste – food scraps and garden clippings etc.
All the while being totally self-contained and self-powered. Apparently there’s over a megajoule per day of energy in human faeces – enough to power the toilet, and your mobile phone – even the lights!
Pretty radical stuff right?
And how far away is this technology. 10 years, 20 years?
Well, no. Apparently you can build one today with off-the-shelf parts. The technology is already here.
The only challenge left is to achieve economies of scale. The Gates foundation has set a target of 5c a day – because that’s what they reckon the developing world can afford.
5c a day. Or just $18.25 a year. For a techno-toilet that would probably mean the end of water restrictions in Australia.
I’m going to get out the slip-n-slide and party like it’s 1972.
This is what excites me these days.
We get so focused on what one nut-job did in Lindt café, or what one politician said about this or that, that we lose sight of what powerful stuff is going on quietly behind the scenes.
There are people with vision, teaming up with people with resources (thanks Bill!), teaming up with people with amazing technology, and trying to tackle the great challenges of our time – challenges that have plagued humanity for thousands of years.
And now, suddenly, it looks like victory could be ours.
And the toilet is just one example. This wild technological age is enabling quiet, peaceful but incredibly powerful revolutions all over the place.
And I love this toilet example because it’s so mundane. We’re not talking about flying into space or harnessing free energy from the earth’s rotation. This is just about using technology and creative intelligence to build a better toilet.
But we have the technological and organisational means now to be able to leverage a single simple innovation into a global revolution.
Develop the prototype in California, email the plans to production centres around the world, and within a year or two you could have the whole world turned on to a brand new way of doing things.
And millions and millions of lives could be saved.
And this is just with a better toilet. What other revolutions are hidden in your back-yard?
This is an age for questioning what we know. Questioning the status quo – the way we’ve always done things.
Because really, now, anything is possible. Every individual has a network of creative and technical genius at their finger-tips. Technology has gone ballistic. The lags between conception and realisation get shorter every day.
And if you’ve got a great idea, there’s probably an engineer in Pakistan who’d love to make it happen. A marketing guy in London. A venture capitalist in Melbourne. An admin guru in the Philippines…
You can make it happen.
The world has no shortage of challenges.
But for every challenge, there is an abundance of answers.